The vibe at the third day of Telluride Bluegrass was jazzed and excited. It was also one of the more musically polarized days here in the box canyon. While some of the older festivarians rushed out of Town Park during the folk-rooted Decemberists set, taking a break or grabbing dinner, some of the younger attendees left as Sam Bush and his band played their annual set.
For those of us who stayed for both sets, we were treated to the festival’s best one-two punch. And who could have asked for a better juxtaposition? The Decemberists and their anachronistic vocabulary and uncanny melodies. Sam Bush and his ridiculous, furious mandolin love. The day’s best set came from the Decemberists, who came armed with “The King is Dead,” a Telly-friendly indie rock record if there ever was one. The band started with “Shiny” and “Down By the Water,” looking and feeling completely at home with frontman Colin Meloy in a white flannel shirt.
“The altitude does weird things to the beer here, right?” Meloy asked the crowd after a sip. “I’d like to offer this (next) song free of licensing charges to the campaign of Michelle Bachmann. If you know her or any of her backers … It’s called ‘Calamity Song.’ ”
The R.E.M.-sounding song had fans on their feet and singing along. And after a shout-out to bandmate Jenny Conlee — who is back in their hometown of Portland, Ore., undergoing chemotherapy for the breast cancer she was diagnosed with earlier this summer — Meloy dedicated the new countrified ballad “Rise to Me” to her.
“We were here five years ago,” Meloy said. “I believe we are the reigning champions of Telluride. We challenged some of the top pickers to a duel … Bela, Jerry, if you wanna come up here and show us your stuff?” As soon as he mentioned the joke-duel, fans knew that there would be some special guests. And later in the set, after “Yankee Bayonet,” “Rakes Song” and the jokey “Dracula’s Daughter,” the stage became a storm on “The Chimbley Sweep.” First it was Bela Fleck. Then it was banjoist Noam Pikelny. Then it was Jerry Douglas. “Alright, we concede,” Meloy said after being surrounded by the veteran pickers.
Sam Bush Band followed that up by starting things off with Emmylou Harris and jogging through an energetic, joyful set that included a cover of Dionne Farris’s “I Know” and a take on the New Grass Revival tune “Unconditional Love,” the latter being a throwback to Bush’s former band.
Later on Saturday night came the festival’s hottest ticket — the Mumford & Sons/Abigail Washburn Nightgrass show at the tiny, picturesque Sheridan Opera House. And it was a perfect setting for the pairing, which had Washburn and her band opening things with special guest Fleck and others on “Keys to the Kingdom” sans amplification. Fleck’s solo created such a frenzy among the clap-happy crowd that he had to politely
shoosh them so they’d hear the trumpet player’s solo. Later, Washburn wowed the crowd with her “Eve Stole the Apple.” And she again proved that she is one of roots music’s most fierce talents.
Mumford & Sons took the stage just before 12:30 a.m. — after frontman Marcus Mumford guested on Old Crow Medicine Show’s set a few blocks away at Town Park (see below). They led off with the title track off their smash hit record “Sigh No More” and “Roll Away Your Stone,” and then they brought out the new “Below My Feet.” As the band proved at their two Fillmore Auditorium shows last week, their new songs are as solid as the material that made them famous. They know their way around a hook, and they know what it takes to get the
kids to sing along.
The hit “Little Lion Man” came later — as did special guests ranging from Roy “Future Man” Wooten to Sarah Jarosz. At one point, the band took to the crowd — with Fleck, Jarosz, mandolin player Chris Thile and others — for an unamplified, in-the-round jam session that was thrilling. This is a band at its peak. And they’re not done just yet. –Ricardo Baca
Pickin’ on Telluride: Reverb editor John Hendrickson sounds off
The Saturday crowd at Telluride Town Park was by far the largest thusfar, with more heavyweight headliners to match. Yonder Mountain String Band played a scorching late-afternoon set that brought out the hula-hooping, shuffle-dancing hippies — and illegal smiles to match. Lead singer Jeff Austin introduced fellow mandolin wizard — and inspiration — Sam Bush late in the set, a precursor to Bush’s own mandolin madness that would occur hours later.
Headlining duties belonged to the not-quite-bluegrass Old Crow Medicine Show. The Nashville sextet has all the elements of a bluegrass troupe — mandolin, banjo, upright bass, etc., though the songs have a decidedly more poppy and folk-rockabilly feel. There was no shortage of shred during last night’s set (“Tear It Down” and “Hard To Love,” in particular), though moments of traditional fingerpicking were few and far between. It didn’t matter. Old Crow’s show was rife with sing-alongs, crescendos, hoe-downs and the most jubilant crowd energy of all three nights. Marcus Mumford snuck on stage to sing a few verses of “Take ‘Em Away” before jetting to the Sheridan Opera House for his band’s Nightgrass set. Later, Emmylou Harris came out to lend a hand on ” We’re All In This Together” — a page of song lyrics in hand, taking visual cues from singer Willie Watson. The closing pair of canonical drunken sing-alongs, “Wagon Wheel” and “Tell It To Me (Cocaine),” closed Saturday eve on a much-needed high note, sending fans home happy — even if the “actual” bluegrass had ended a few hours earlier. –John Hendrickson
Joe McCabe is a Denver photographer and a regular contributor to Reverb. Check out his website.